On 26th September Fiji’s suspension from the Commonwealth was fully lifted following democratic elections on the 17th of that month. Here, UK MP Meg Munn shares her experience of monitoring those elections as part of the Multi-national Observer Group…
I'm a politician who loves election days – the campaigning stops and voters make their choice at the ballot box – but on the 17 September I swapped my rosette for a ‘high-vis’ jacket with ‘Observer’ on the back. My job was not to persuade people who to vote for, but to watch the election process as Fiji went to the polls for the first time since the 2006 coup.
An unelected government had been running the country with the Prime Minister, and architect of the coup, Rear Admiral (Rtd.) Frank Bainimarama, promising a number of times to move to elections. International concern had built up about the length of time the country was without any democratic accountability and Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth.
At last a new constitution was in place which specified a parliament of 50 MPs, elected to represent the whole of Fiji on an open list system. An international group co-led by Australia, Indonesia and India, known as the Multi-national Observer Group (MOG) was the only outside observation allowed. I was selected by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK Branch to lead the UK team.
The MOG included 92 observers from a wide range of countries and international organisations. A full day's training was followed by each team scoping out their route for polling day in their allocated area. Teams consisted of two observers, a local guide and a driver. My partner was Ketut, a political science professor from Indonesia, and with the help of our driver we mapped out a route that included polling stations in the town of Nausori, and in surrounding rural villages.
Polling day meant an early start with teams expected to reach their first polling station before 7am to observe the set up. Just before the polls opened, all the polling workers stood and sang the national anthem. Over the next ten hours we visited around 21 polling stations, checking whether procedures were being followed correctly, identifying problems and noting whether political parties had observers present.
It was a national holiday, so most people voted early so as to have the rest of the day free. Although there were long queues, voters waited patiently and were happy to tell us about their experiences. Extensive voter information and education meant that most voters in urban areas knew what to expect and how to vote. Although a voter information booklet with candidate’s pictures was provided, not including party affiliation made the process confusing for some.
Many polling stations were in schools or halls, sometimes an outside shelter was used with tape in place to designate the route voters should take. When we arrived in a village the head man shouted our arrival, and all the polling stations had a police presence. To minimise the possibility of tampering, votes were counted in each individual polling station. Although no station had more than 500 voters, the large ballot paper and a rigorous process meant that most counts took four hours or more. Finally the results were posted at each polling station.
The electoral systems were rigorous and transparent with the polling staff being conscientious and managing any problems responsibly. But there were times when voters found they were registered at a different polling station to the one they expected. An excellent text messaging system meant they could quickly ascertain where they should be. Many polling stations were not fully accessible and presiding officers had to find ways to ensure all could vote.
The Election Day is only part of the democratic process. The MOG was also tasked with looking at the general environment in which the election took place. The media had been subject to restrictions that limited free reporting and civil society organisations were not allowed to take any part in the process. The final report is likely to detail further issues of concern that should be addressed in future elections.
Despite these problems the view of observers was that the election process itself had allowed Fijians to vote, and that the election would broadly express the will of the people. The MOG will publish its full report in a few weeks, which will reflect more fully on the problems as well as good practice.
The result has now been officially declared and Frank Bainimarama becomes the elected Prime Minister, with his Fiji First party having won around 60% of the vote.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society.